Back when Little Prince started Japanese youchien last April, whenever the 3-year-old got frustrated or otherwise overwhelmed by big feelings, he would pull the masks off all his teachers’ faces. Of course I was duly mortified when the vice-principal told me this, but at the same time the school’s staff insisted that it was because Little Prince wanted to know whether they were smiling or not. Once the teachers flashed their best smiles- they assured me- he left their face coverings alone. Lately I have seen some of his teachers pick him up at the bus stop in several layers of clear masks and transparent visors. It looks a bit hot underneath, but little prince can see their faces.
I love them. Have I mentioned I love them? This is precisely why I chose this particular preschool for my son.
Little Prince’s youchien emphasizes the need for balance. In order to maintain such a policy, you must constantly be on your toes, always processing new information and learning new things. The teachers at my son’s school are regularly reevaluating the situation, sending out parent surveys via the school’s private app (did I mention they also save paper?), and using all available resources to make the best and safest decisions for students and teachers.
But Little Prince’s youchien is the anomaly in Tokyo. I know this because I visited countless schools last Fall, when researching the right fit for my son. The Covid policies of all the other private kindergartens in my area consist mainly of making rules and then obeying them blindly. This method is definitely easier because it doesn’t require any thinking, you just need to conjure a certain (and crucify me for saying this, but uniquely Japanese) banal indifference whenever you encounter an individual whom you know in your heart should be an exception to the rule.
At the end of my search, Little Prince only applied to only one institution. This is not exactly recommended, so I am very glad that we dressed him in a seersucker suit for his interview and he got in. Little did they know the problems he would cause. But now they are stuck with him for three years and I couldn’t be happier about it.
I bring this up because this week, in Japan, a cluster infection at a preschool has been in the news. So far, 65 children and 14 staff have tested positive for the virus at the Jyozan nursery school in Kumamoto. When asked about their counter-virus measures, officials from the school said that they believed that masks were unhealthy for childhood development. This did not go over well on SMS. Yet while we’ve been busy demonizing this school for its policies, some forget that claims of masking’s adverse effect on early childhood education, are not entirely unfounded.
This topic hits close to home for me, because when Little Prince started Japanese school a few months ago, it was not only his first experience in a classroom outside the comfort of his home, but he couldn’t speak Japanese. And I know from my homestay experience in Japan, almost 20 years ago now, that when you don’t understand the rapid exchanges of an unfamiliar language all around you, other social cues- even the most minute facial expressions- take on unprecedented significance. So it’s no wonder Little Prince was acting out. Luckily for me, though, his teachers took appropriate actions.
Jyozan, on the other hand, fucked up in other ways as well. The teachers didn’t ventilate their classrooms properly, and, most infuriatingly, the administration did not consult the students’ parents on its decision to teach unmasked. Rather than blindly following prescribed rules, as I would say most preschools in the country are doing, Jyozan blindly rebelled.
Perhaps this is one of the less documented detriments of an education system that teaches pupils not challenge authority. That is to say, that when the time for resistance finally comes, people have no idea how to go about it effectively. When civil disobedience is not taught in classes, people don’t know how effectively manifest their dissent. Even when it is justified.